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Sermon: Evensong (St Matthew) 21 Sept 2014

Sunday 21st September 2014
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The story of the Rich Young Man told in the Gospel according to St Matthew, whom we honour today, draws out themes of discipleship and decision, of inheritance and Kingdom. There is a decisive and demanding edge to Jesus' encounter with the rich young man. It is an encounter into which, irrespective of our material wealth, we should place ourselves.  The young man interrogates Jesus, and Jesus can take questions, but he can also throw them back. The rich young man is asked to make a decision about the cost of discipleship: he could afford all sorts of material comforts and trinkets; could he afford to give everything up to walk the way of Jesus Christ and live the Kingdom of God?

The story of the Rich Young Man echoes the call of Levi in that decisive demand, 'follow me' (Mark 2.13-17; Luke 5.27-32). In that moment Levi makes a decision and gets up and follows Jesus, leaving behind, we can safely assume, the riches and cash flow of the tax booth, and in Luke's gospel throws a banquet, hinting at the Kingdom of which he is now a part. Interestingly in Matthew's account of the same encounter he names the tax collector not 'Levi', but 'Matthew', his own name. He has shown how we can place ourselves into the shoes, Italian calf skin shoes, no doubt, of the rich young man (Matthew 9.9-13). Indeed, all these calls to discipleship in the New Testament echo and prefigure the call to each of us in discipleship and choice.

So what is that choice? It is both a taking on and giving up: acceptance and renunciation. The rich young man is asked to discard any inheritance that he assumes to be his through his own sense of righteousness. He assumed that inheritance by living by the commandments.

Let's be clear though. For the covenant people of Israel, following the commandments was not a way of earning reward or buying their way into favour with God; rather it was an honouring of the Covenant relationship with the God of Israel. To keep the commandments was to keep faith with God's promised inheritance, as God had asked. The newness of the New Covenant is that God's covenant with humanity is extended to all nations, not through the observance of commandments but through the grace of the saving works of Christ: his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. All the commandments now are seen through the lens of the command to love, primarily love of God and neighbour, and through the conviction that all people are invited to the covenant relationship with God, in Christ.

So the New Covenant opens up and goes beyond; it stretches out the boundaries of the Covenant (Isaiah 54.2-3) and breaks down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2.11-22). The Covenant inheritance now goes beyond the promise of land and territory in God's covenant with Abraham; it goes beyond the inheritance of one nation in God's covenant with Moses and the people of Israel. The new inheritance is one of eternal life in a Covenant that binds us, in the power of the Spirit to the Father, in the name of Christ: a relationship of grace and acceptance, of being restored in God's image and likeness.

Jesus refers to the inheritance of eternal life promised to the twelve tribes of Israel. Now the tribes of the covenant people will now be recast and extended. So the apostles represent the twelve tribes in this new relationship and inheritance (Matthew 19.28-30) on the thrones of God's Kingdom. All who have taken on the way of Christ and renounced their previous, illusory securities will receive the inheritance of full and abundant life; life bound into and flowing out of God's life.

As we ponder discipleship and choice, inheritance and Kingdom, these themes come together in the story of The Rich Young Man reinforced by the call of Levi. Levi is Everyman/Everyperson. Just as St Matthew renamed Levi, with his own name, so I should rename Levi, with my name, Andrew, and you with your name, so you and I become the ones who responds afresh, tonight, to the call of Jesus, 'follow me'.

The name Levi is intriguing for another reason. The Hebrew Bible, the first covenant, is shot through with the language of inheritance: inheriting the land; inheriting birthrights; the heathen seizing Israel's inheritance, and the like. It sounds like the correspondence of a firm of solicitors to various executors. The one exception of the promise of inheritance is to one of the twelve tribes. This tribe can depend on no inheritance. They are given a tithe, a tenth of sacrifices and of the fruit of the land, however big or small that yield is; they have no future promise. That tribe then is called to live in the abundance of the moment and what God provides. This tribe is the Tribe of...Levi. The status of the priestly tribe of Levi turns the notion of inheritance on its head. It is repeated through the Hebrew Bible, most typically in Ezekiel: 'This shall be their inheritance: I am their inheritance; and you shall give them no holding in Israel; I am their holding'. (Ezekiel 44.28) So by receiving a tenth of the produce of the land the Levitical priests weren't fiddling or taxing the people, they were entirely dependent on grace and the abundance of the land and what was offered to God.

The tribe of Levi was the priestly tribe. The Church is called to be a priestly people living on the fullness and totality of God's grace and mercy (1 Peter 2.9, 10); denied and denying the security and grip of material wealth. 'If only', you might well think. The Church's failure to live like that is a failure to heed Christ's call, 'follow me'. Together as the Church we need to place ourselves repeatedly under God and in the shoes of the rich young man, not pointing the finger at him, but acknowledging our own failure to understand our true inheritance of the Kingdom.

On this feast of St Matthew, a fellow follower in the Way, let us ponder our own discipleship and choice, our inheritance and the Kingdom; a Kingdom whose inheritance of grace and mercy is turned to Christ and walks in his Way.